Kavalan is the first and only single malt whisky from the Asian island of Taiwan. It is produced by the King Car Corporation, which was set up in 1979 and is now Taiwan's biggest food and beverage manufacturer. The whisky distillery was built in 2005/06 and is one of the most technically advanced in the world. It is located in Yuanshan, which lies in the north of the island and is to the south of the major cities of Taipei and Keelung, close to the Pacific coast. It has copper stills that were constructed in Scotland and the distillery has an annual capacity of approximately six million bottles. The name of Kavalan is taken from a group of indigenous people who once lived in the Yi-Lan County where the distillery is located.
The Kavalan whiskies have been created, selected and blended by Ian Chang under the guidance of the legendary Dr. Jim Swan, who is a worldwide authority in the field of alcoholic beverages. Dr. Swan has consulted with distilleries, breweries and wineries around the world, including Penderyn in Wales. The first single malt was released at the end of 2008. This was joined in 2009 by one matured in ex-Port wine casks and two cask strength, single cask releases named Solist – one from ex-bourbon casks and one from sherry casks. The range is currently only sold in Taiwan and in a selection of cities in China, plus various airport locations in south east Asia. This Vinho is the third release in the Solist series and has been matured in ex-wine casks. Kavalan's whiskies are starting to win much acclaim and silverware around the world.
The bottling strength is a hefty 58.2% ABV and there are a very limited number of bottles. We were delighted to receive a sample of Vinho recently (our sample is at 59.1% ABV) from Ian Chang and have spoken with him about the bottling. He explains,
"The Vinho is fully matured in used American oak wine barrels that have been toasted and re-charred manually. The American oak that has been seasoned in the open air for at least 24 months. The oak is slow grown that results in a greater release of flavours into the whisky. This reduces the astringent effect of tannins and releases more vanilla spiciness and hints of herbs. The result is softness and added complexity. The casks have deliberately been used to mature both red and white wines and after their use for wine maturation the casks are carefully shaved inside then gently toasted over an oak chip fire for a strictly controlled period of time and temperature. This converts wine residues into a complex mixture of fruit flavours. Then the casks are charred for a short period of time to release lashings of flavours such as vanilla and caramelised sugars. The result is a more complex whisky than is possible than with whisky casks alone!"
Our tasting notes
The colour of this Vinho is a dark reddish, almost chestnut brown. The nose is rich and intense with a battle taking place between the sweet and spicy aromas. There is a complex mix of aromas here - sweeter ones include dark dried fruits (think of raisins, prunes and figs), vanilla, demerara sugar and orange marmalade. These are counteracted by spicy/dry notes of cinnamon, tamarind, oak, sandalwood and herbal bitters (imagine cassia bark). Prominent notes of burnt caramel and green apple add to the complexity with time.
Wow - on the palate, this kicks you with initial hot, spicy alcohol (remember it is 59% ABV!) but this passes to reveal a rich, sweet and almost syrupy feeling whisky in your mouth. First are the sweeter elements - heavy caramel, the orange marmalade again, dark chocolate, treacle/molasses and fruity wine gums. The flavour profile is unusual but very good, with further notes coming through to give great depth - spiced orange, malty cereals, coffee grounds and some bitter, spicy, woody oak, cinnamon and cloves. The alcoholic strength asks you to add water and with a few drops the spices soften and there is much less initial heat. The orange and caramel notes are exaggerated well. The finish is very long and intense, being led by burnt sugar and heavy cereal characteristics. Through comes some peppery spice but overall, the finish is warm and sweet.
What's the verdict?
This is a dark, intense and complex whisky that makes you realise just why Kavalan are starting to win some serious awards for their whiskies and for their innovative use of casks. It may be a little 'over the top' and too intense for some, but should be tried all the same. The Vinho is reminiscent of a Cognac or Armagnac and would be very good as a warming after dinner dram - it is very enjoyable on its own or with a dash of water, but would be an excellent accompaniment with a decent cigar.